Ku-ki’cha loped over the crest of the sand dune and paused, looking. So that is Altaruk , he thought. It had not been a particularly long or difficult journey, as his usual hunting grounds were in the Great Alluvial Wastes to the north of the town, and he knew the territory well enough to avoid being ambushed by bandits or devoured by silt runners. Still, he had not survived five years under the pitiless sun of Athas without understanding that survival was sometimes as much a matter of luck as of wisdom and experience. Once again he delved in his pack with his middle set of arms and retrieved the small bone and chitin necklace. Rikus had been unlucky, he thought, as he turned it in his claws. Rikus had come from a place like this, a slave fleeing into the desert who might have perished like so many before, had he not met Ku-ki’cha’s clutch. The big, tough mul had proved his worth as a hunter – and friend – several times over before – well, what was past was past. Ku-ki’cha refocused his purplish eyes on the settlement in the distance, and reflected that he knew little of the ways of the folk who lived in such places. Gripping his crescent-bladed gythka, he set off again, noting that there seemed to be others on the road below.
As the thri-kreen drew closer the three travellers turned to look at him. The most imposing of the group was a half-giant, obviously a warrior by his musculature and weapons. Next to him stood a figure swathed in robes against the dust, but whose reptilian snout and scaly skin marked him unmistakeably as a dray. The last was also clad in desert garb, but smaller and of slighter build – a woman, certainly, possibly a human, maybe even an elf. As Ku-ki’cha drew closer, he raised one claw. “Ku-ki’cha greets you and wishes you good journey,” noting their expressions in response to his accent. “I walk with you, yes?” I hope I said that right , he thought. The woman raised her hand. “Good day to you. I don’t see why not. Are you heading to Altaruk?” Ku-ki’cha was about to reply when the goliath bellowed, “SANDSTORM!” and the four of them barely had time to find shelter in a roadside ditch before the wind rose and began lashing the dunes into a maelstrom of flying sand.
The storm died down during the night and the four travellers arrived at Altaruk as the sun broke over the horizon.
They headed straight for a tavern to seek refreshment and gathered around the same table, feeling a kind of bond born out of the shared hardship of the night before. As was his habit, Ku-ki’cha began questioning his table companions. The goliath was named Fen and it seemed he had fought as a gladiator. He also seemed to enjoy his drink and guffawing loudly, which the thri-kreen found mildly irritating, but judged him a worthwhile companion should the need arise. Timak,the dray, was reticent about himself – he claimed to be one of the mind-gifted. Ku-ki’cha’s questioning seemed to offend him and the two were nearly on the point of challenging each other, though tempers subsided and the thri-kreen turned his attention to the woman. Here was a true oddity; she was neither human nor elven but a true eladrin, though why she came to be so far from the Lands Within The Wind she did not say. When questioned about her powers, for answer she produced a cockroach (it was not the most salubrious of taverns, and for some patrons the presence of such insects was simply equivalent to free bar snacks), placed it on her palm, stared intently, and it withered and died. “I am Naivara. That is what happens to those who cross me.” There was a brief, awed silence, then Fen shouted, “Defilement! That’s defilement!” Every head in the tavern swivelled to look and Naivara rolled her eyes and said loudly, “Don’t be stupid. He’s drunk too much.” Then to Fen: “I simply used the power of my mind. Perhaps that’s too difficult a concept for you to grasp.” The barbarian subsided back into his seat and called for more drink.
A few moments later several armed men arrived at the table. They bore some kind of insignia on their clothing. The leader spoke, politely but firmly, “Please come with us.” “Why should we?” asked Fen pugnaciously. “We are the City Guard. Lord Rhotan Vor requires to see you immediately – he believes you may be able to help him in a certain matter. I am sure he will be suitably grateful. Now, will you come?”
Rhotan Vor’s house was a three-storey house built of stone, rather than the mud-brick of lesser dwellings. The group and their escort entered via a courtyard, shaded by awnings and were ushered into a reception hall. The room was furnished with good quality stuff and fine tapestries; the visitors sensed money. Vor entered, greeting his four guests warmly and apologising for the manner of their arrival. He was a dwarf, dressed in fine Raam linen with his hair and beard oiled and braided. It appeared he was the head of House Wavir in Altaruk and one of their caravans had gone missing following the sandstorm of the previous night. Naturally he was keen to know what had become of it and was willing to pay 100 gold per person to the members of a search party, plus any necessary supplies. Some haggling followed and the fee rose to 120. “But you must set off immediately”, stipulated the noble. Ku-ki’cha thought a moment – his main purpose in coming to Altaruk had been to seek an old girlfriend of Rikus’s and pass on the news of his death, plus his old comrade’s few belongings. If he managed to survive this expedition, he might be able to add a little more gold to the few coins that were Rikus’s worldly wealth. Evidently this woman Neska had meant a great deal to Rikus and it seemed a fitting way to honour his memory.
So it was that later that morning the four companions found themselves following the road leading out of town that the missing caravan would have taken. They had survived a short but bruising encounter with a small band of silt runners; Ku-ki’cha and Fen had been laid low by poisoned darts but his colleagues had counterattacked fiercely and overcame their foes.
A recovered Ku-ki’cha fell upon the silt runner corpses with delight, slicing meat off the carcasses for later. He also took one of his fallen enemies’ blowpipes and supply of darts, recognising a powerful weapon when he saw one.
They came across the remains of the caravan eventually, having traced the wheel marks from the road into the dunes. Of the beasts who had pulled the wagons there was no sign; the shafts hung empty and nothing much was left of the carts but broken wood and fabric. There seemed to be some movement around the wrecked vehicles, and a careful reconnaissance revealed several kruthiks, six small and one large, presumably feeding on bodies lying around the site. Time passed, and the giant beetles began to move slowly away from the area. The party were concealed behind a large rock outcrop, and the thri-kreen was using his remote viewing ability to monitor the creatures. They hoped to have a chance to look at the caravan unmolested, but to their alarm it became plain that the kruthiks had sensed their presence and were heading their way.
With a tremendous leap, Fen and Ku-ki’cha sprang up on top of the outcropping and down the other side to confront and kill two of the smaller kruthiks. Timak brought down two with an eldritch blast. “Look out!” shouted Fen, pointing where two more kruthiks burst from tunnels, jaws snapping, then turned his attention to the largest one. Ku-ki’cha’s limbs thrashed in a furious blur and the creature was slammed off its feet and lay on its back, legs waving impotently. The dray took advantage of its weakness to finish it off with more waves of power, but meanwhile a medium-sized kruthik had felled the thri-kreen. Fen sprang between the fallen monk and the giant beetle. Naivara paused to stabilise the injured Ku-ki’cha. Then, she charged forward, adjusted her perception and stepped briefly in and out of the fey realm to appear on top of one of the wagons, blasting another kruthik with concentrated mental energy. Finally Timak slew the last one with a cast of his chatchaka. The party moved up to inspect the wrecked caravan.